Skip to main content

Let's Talk Turkey about USDA Poultry Grades

Posted by Craig A. Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Nov 18, 2013
A guide to USDA poultry grades, labeling terms and cooking tips. Click to view a larger version.
A guide to USDA poultry grades, labeling terms and cooking tips. Click to view a larger version.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it is the perfect time to learn more about the quality grade standards for poultry products and the “Grade A” shield you might find on the label of your family’s main dish.  Most consumers are familiar with the USDA beef grades – Prime, Choice and Select.  But did you know USDA has similar grade standards for Poultry products?

The USDA grade shields are reputable symbols of quality American poultry products.  Large-volume buyers such as grocery stores, military institutions, restaurants, and even foreign governments use the quality grades as a common “language” within the poultry industry, making business transactions easier.

The USDA grade shield assures consumers that the products have gone through a rigorous review process by highly-skilled USDA graders that follow the official grade standards developed, maintained and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. But from a consumer standpoint, what do these quality poultry grades mean?

While there are other grades, Grade A is the most common grade sold in supermarkets.  What makes poultry products qualify for Grade A depends on the absence of “defects,” such as the presence of feathers or bruising and discoloration.  As poultry is graded, it either meets Grade A criteria for quality or it is downgraded to lesser grades (B &C) depending on the number of defects.

Chickens and turkeys are the most common kinds of poultry sold today.  Americans consume more chicken than anyone else in the world, and turkey consumption has nearly doubled over the past 30 years.  As with other meats, the age of the bird can influence the flavor and tenderness of the meat.  So what options should consumers consider when purchasing poultry?

  • Young birds are most commonly found in stores and have tender, plump meat. All young birds are suitable for all cooking methods, especially broiling, barbecuing, roasting, frying or grilling.
    • For chicken, young birds may be labeled as young chicken, Cornish game hen, broiler, fryer, roaster or capon.
    • For turkey, young birds may be labeled as young turkey, fryer-roaster, young hen, or young tom.
  • Mature birds may not be as tender, but are great choices for moist-heat cooking such as stewing or baking, and are often preferred for soups, casseroles, salads, or sandwiches.

So as you are shopping for your holiday meals this season, look for the USDA grade shield, and be confident in the quality of the meal you are serving.